A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing


The plants

Last Friday was World Sleep Day! I have it from a reliable source that a representative from the Mental Health Foundation carried a bed onto Hampstead Heath and fully dressed it-presumably to educate the public on the importance of sleep for good health. So I won’t be the only mad fool to install a real bed outdoors in the UK!

Back to sensible issues-choosing the plants for my Sleep Well show garden

Where to begin choosing plants? I have been close to plants all my life; my parents are keen gardeners and used to grow their own fruit and veg. I helped out at Dad’s garden centre when I was a teenager and in my early twenties I spent eleven glorious years working in Plant Biology, UCNW Bangor. I now have an allotment where I grow mostly fruit, including black, red and white currants, raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries to keep daughter #2 in smoothies. It should have been almost impossible to choose plants for the show garden because I just love them. However, because the concept of the garden was clear in my mind, and my garden design training had instilled a set of rules in me, I found plant choice relatively simple (whether I manage to acquire the plants remains to be seen!).

Maisie and I on our allotment

I used the following selection criteria to start the plant list:

1. Create the mood-comforting, calming, dreamlike and scented
2. Choose a limited colour palette to reflect the mood
3. Choose a variety of leaf/flower shapes, textures and heights
4. Ensure year round interest
5. Plants must have a healing/medicinal quality (I have exercised some artistic licence here to allow for grasses)
6. Plants must be happy in full sun and similar soil type

From the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers to a few main plant groups

The process of whittling down a world of plants to very few was similar to playing ‘Guess Who’ but instead of Eric, David and Susan I ended up with Echinacea, Sanguisorba and Salvia! Each plant under consideration from the first plant list was put through further selection criteria:
Player 1 (me): does your plant have bright red flowers?
Player 2 (the selection criteria): No (because I don’t want bright red) – put down all your plants with bright red flowers
Player 1: does your plant have an airy form?
Player 2: yes- keep all plants with an airy form up
At the end of my game I had a number of plants from which I selected a limited number of genera and colours.

Plants were chosen for three main height groups: tall, medium and low. The tall planting should disguise the fencing and over time make the bed look like it had grown from the garden with the plants. Medium and low planting would create ‘cushion’ shapes as well as allow for viewing the garden from the boundaries. Plants of one type will be placed in ‘drifts’ or small groups, next to drifts of complementary types. For example, amongst the ‘Santolina cushions’ would be the ‘airy Sanguisorba’ providing movement; similarly loose airy grasses would be used in the tall sections to complement Salvias. Verbena officinalis planted in the gravel will create a delicious lemony aroma, and Santolinas and Sage will complement this. The colour palette is limited by design to be calming but there is a ‘pop’ of colour from Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’ in the low beds, and Sanguisorba officinalis in the medium beds.

Some of the plants featuring in the show garden. Airy Sanguisorba ‘Tanna’, Santolina ‘cushions’, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and Salvia officinalis purparescens.

Keeping designing rules –and breaking them

Where possible I have chosen different species from the same genus for unity in planting: tall and shorter Sanguisorbas and Verbenas. Similarly I have two types of flowering purple ‘spires’ in Salvia ‘Amistad’ and Agastache ‘Black Adder’, two ‘button flowered’ plant types in Santolina and Echinacea buds (or centres if the flowers are open). Variety is important, with the contrasts in form and colour – broad ferny leaves of Artemesia ‘Powys Castle’ and the intricate coral-like leaves of the Santolinas, silver leaves of Santolina and purple of Sage, and the broad flat Fig leaves and slender grasses. It is always good to adhere to a planting plan, but I have a feeling that when I am trying out placing different plants next to each other at the nursery I may be surprised by some unlikely and pleasing associations! In addition, some plants may not be the expected size in July, and some might be in flower instead of bud (I would like Echinaceas in bud for a feeling of newness and future promise), so plant placing might well evolve over June.

Echinacea buds, Santolina ‘button’ flowers and ‘dreaming spires’ of Salvia ‘Amistad’ and Agastache ‘Black Adder’.

Sourcing the plants-the hard bit!

Hard as I tried I could not find Santolina ‘Edward Bowles’ in a decent pot size, which was disappointing as he had looked magnificent in garden blogger Rosemary’s garden when I visited last year [Here’s my garden]. In fact, any Santolinas greater than pot size 5L are not on sale so I will try to create my ‘cushions’ by growing 3 x3L plants together in 10L pots. I have also realised I am never going to find everything in one place and so will be paying several delivery charges.

I needed to decide on a large statement plant and after much deliberation it was between a few Silver Birches, with their ethereal white trunks or some sumptuous full standard Fig trees. After much deliberation and several email correspondences with Tim at Paramount Plants [Paramount Plants], who patiently sent me photos of said trees, I opted for the Figs. Figs wouldn’t get too big for the future garden; they have fabulous leaves and edible fruit (if you’re quick enough to beat the birds). I have a beautiful Fig in my garden and had a bumper harvest last summer, with some for the birds too. My only concern was that standard Fig trees might look too ‘designer’ for my naturalistic/understated planting, but I think they’ll work – we’ll see!

In an attempt to save money (I will talk about budget in another post) I have sown some Verbena ‘Hastata’, Verbena ‘Bonariensis’ and Scabious atropurpurea for weaving into the tall border; I also ordered some plug plants of bronze Fennel, all of these are from Sarah Raven’s beautiful collection [Sarah Raven]. The Scabious germinated in a few days, Verbena ‘Hastata’ after two weeks, but no sign of the Verbena ‘Bonariensis’ yet! I feel I’ve tempted fate by even mentioning them, but if some of them come good and tall I will feel that great elation one does when growing plants from seed.

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Late February 2018: Brrr-it’s cold outside but the seeds are warm


Quite a few friends have asked me how my plants are growing for the show garden and I realised that this must be a common misconception that one would obtain plants big enough for a show garden in one growing season – I wish I could have grown them myself but on this occasion I will need to buy them from nurseries.  For the recipient of the garden I shall create a maintenance plan to outline gardening jobs for the year-although there won’t be much to do aside from sleeping or using the plants for medicinal purposes. Even if you can’t see yourself making a tincture of Echinacea to stimulate your immune system, you would probably enjoy a nice cup of lemon tea or a fresh succulent fig!

I hope my blog has inspired you to think about plants for your own garden. Thank you for reading!

Next time…..the bed and the quilt



A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeing

The embryonic garden

The back to back (B2B) show garden plot

“Make sure you buy some spray paint and mark out the plot- do it now. It’s bloody small!” Clive Scott, an experienced B2B show garden designer imparts countless hints down the phone (Clive Scott). He kindly spends a good half hour of his Saturday morning answering questions from me- a first time show designer. The following weekend I visit my ‘home’ in North Wales and I arrange bamboo canes, bits of wire edging and three garden chairs on my parents’ lawn (my garden is positively miniature compared to their plot) to visualize the plot I will get. The chicken is roaming the garden as usual and enjoys the company-if a little unconventional. 6m x4m (or about 20 ft. x13 ft. in ye olde currency) is the size of a B2B plot at Tatton, with a screen wall 2m high and 4m long along two sides forming a barrier between you and two other plot holders. I have already submitted my design of course but there’s no substitute for marking out the real space.

Should the ‘bed’ be on a diagonal or straight?

Three garden chairs are arranged to fill the width of a double bed (yes a real bed….) and I try in vain to fit a sheet onto some shorter bamboo canes to simulate the bed’s volume in the space. The bitter wind mocks me and I fail to get a shot of the assemblage before the whole thing collapses. The sheet makes off like a spectre towards the chicken, who is disgruntled to say the least, and runs full pelt towards the house with her splendid blue/black plumage ruffling in the wind. Mam has to administer freshly grated cheese and later some pate on toast to placate her. Clive is right…..of course

The ‘client’

The Sleep Well garden is designed for a client wanting an informal private garden in which to relax and unwind, away from distractions. He/she enjoys being outdoors and likes gardening, but wants a medium maintenance garden, preferring to enjoy the space more than gardening it. The garden would be attached to the house, or if space allowed, hidden away at the bottom of a larger garden- a secret hideaway (want one of these?). It goes without saying that a good garden designer ensures year round interest.

I imagine I am the client and I consider how to relax. I need to feel warm, safe (from the Betterware man/whoever else rings the front doorbell, the PPI person on the phone, the sun, the rain [more about that later]); pleasant smells are also on the list. To unwind requires slowing down, being ‘in the moment’ and mindful of surroundings (which must therefore be calming too). So I need softness, wafting forms, faint rustling sound and maybe some water. I am getting sleepy already. To add to this, I want the sky to be part of the garden to remind me that I am but a small speck in a vast universe and nothing REALLY matters that much. I will feel part of the garden and I will slow to its pace. It is a private inward-looking space, being enclosed with boundaries (fence/wall/hedges).

This was the first ‘mood board’ for the planting

The point of the garden

It’s big ask to make a garden that will serve as a form of therapy. In effect that’s what my brief is to myself and it would be great to be commissioned to make these gardens for anyone. I imagine a GP prescribing: “What you need madam is a private garden with a bed with comforting quilt, and space for yoga on some grass”. You might laugh but lifestyle medicine is at the forefront of current clinical practice. This January the Royal College of General Practitioners ran a course for GPs to teach them the principles of Lifestyle Medicine and how to deliver it to the NHS. The four pillars of preventive/Lifestyle Medicine are EAT, SLEEP, MOVE, RELAX- so maybe I need some Figs trees in there for the EAT bit?

Next time

The next blog will be about the plants. I hope you have enjoyed reading!




Julie Dunn – Tatton Show Garden

This is my blog about creating my first RHS show garden at Tatton Park 2018

A Tatton show garden in the making: ‘Sleep Well’ a garden for wellbeingPerspective

I’ve got a show garden!

January 16 2018.
“Got the garden!” I text my husband and our two daughters. “Well done” (husband), well done Mum (D#1) and “fab-what is it?” (D#2). I phone Mam and Dad-“I got the garden!” I blurt out. “Oh that’s great, did you not think you would?” says my mother. It’s the stuff of my dreams I think-of course I didn’t expect it! I run around work but no-one is around as it’s lunchtime, so I leave a note on a keyboard saying “OMG got the garden!!!” About five minutes pass and I think to myself-now I have to deliver it. I re-read the email from the RHS to check it’s still there (and real). I phone Jan (Janet Haigh) and Steve, ‘proper’ artists and creative mentors, who have helped it happen with their beautiful illustrations and many discussions (and a few Brancott’s). A string of expletives emerge from the receiver. I tell them that they were instrumental to the process and Jan says “YOU did it babe”.

May 2017: The dormant seed and its sudden germination

Lets start at the beginning…
Almost sixteen years ago I had a dream I had a show garden at Chelsea with planting based on garments my mother had created from Kaffe Fassett’s Glorious Knitting book. The particular knitwear was not defined but the idea was planted. My scribbled notes upon waking were stuffed into a file and soon after that I had my second daughter.


A selection from my Kaffe Fassett collection knitted by my mother

About a year ago…
The notes remained in the file until last May when I found myself with a lot of spare time. Not ‘nice’ spare time, but the post-op type -sitting, not allowing myself to sit in garden (or I would garden), and reading Thomas Hardys and dreaming/planning life in general. After about four weeks I was mentally relaunching my garden design business (after more than a ten year lapse). Daily doses of Doctor in the House programs telling me about Lifestyle Medicine (daytime TV!) combined with the desire to escape a scientific career (I blame Hardy [Thomas]) germinated into an idea for a Tatton back to back show garden.

So we are up to date again now – I will create a garden in which to sleep, which would (obviously) have a fully dressed four poster bed within. I’ve had to refine the design a bit but most of it is still there – seems a concept many people are struggling with. If I had a pound for every time I have to say “No, an actual bed” we could just about afford the Fig trees (more about them later).


So I would like to take you on a journey with me through the stresses, highs and lows of creating a show garden at the RHS Flower Show Tatton Park 2018.

Next time: the client, the early design and the whole point…

Thanks for reading my blog – I hope you enjoyed it!